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Why you need to find the workplace that works for you

Many people return to work after a vacation break dissatisfied and start to ruminate about making a major career change. But all too often when people are unhappy, they attribute their distress to what they are doing – their role and the skills they are using – rather than to where they are doing it.

If you are experiencing career distress, consider the possibility that you need a change of scenery rather than a major career change.

Whenever I first visit a company, I am struck by the degree to which organizations, like people, have their own distinctive personalities – happy or sour, outgoing or withdrawn, energetic or calm. Just as with people, there needs to be the right chemistry to make a match with your work environment.

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You can learn a lot about what it feels like to work somewhere, and whether you will make the right connection, simply by walking around and observing. Is there a lot of earnest conversation in which people seem engaged? Do people seem happy? Note the office layout, the kind of art on the walls, how people dress.

Different industries tend to have their own character, but within an industry there can be huge differences. On book tours, for example, I have visited newspaper offices across Canada. In some offices, employees looked like they had just rolled out of bed and were miserable; while in others, it seemed staff had put some thought into their dress and were happy.

Before you leap into a major career reinvention, there are several factors to consider that will help identify your best workplace environment, given your values and work style. If you are working for a large company you might find that the role you are in is a good match – you just need to switch departments.

Nature of the business

The core work of the company, and the kinds of services or products it delivers, influence its culture. Consider the personality of an organization composed of helper types such as human resource professionals, social workers, nurses. It will tend to be more nurturing because of the values and motivations associated with helping roles, compared with those in tougher industries, such as manufacturing or construction. If you are a more sensitive person, hard-nosed environments will be more difficult for you.

Risk and reward levels

There is significantly more risk involved with a miscalculation at a hydro utility (a massive blackout, say) than at a hotel (too many guests for too few rooms). Whether the risks are financial, environmental or safety-related, in industries where prudence is required, cautiousness tends to permeate the entire organization. Workers in these types of companies tend to have strong motivational desires for security.

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The size of potential rewards is also important. For example, investment banking tends to be less risk-averse than life insurance because the potential payoffs are great. These differences are also reflected in people's motivations and work behaviours.

Pace of work

It can be demanding to work in an organization where many things happen at once without much advance planning – though many people thrive in such environments. Compare a busy retail environment and a public accounting firm, for example, in terms of the number of people interactions and the necessity for backroom analyses.

Staff education

Knowledge workers – those with higher education and more training – are more expensive to replace than less-educated employees who engage in routine transactions. As a result, knowledge-work organizations tend to treat their employees more benevolently, with greater developmental opportunities, flexible work options and better benefits.

Importance of the function

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Is the function of the job (or the department or division) seen as overhead for the business? Or is it seen as a source of profit? Consider the role of human resources. For years, HR has lobbied to be seen as an important player at the management table. But because many companies, perhaps incorrectly, see HR as overhead – necessary for compensation and employee relations but not a profit centre – it has often been treated as inferior.

Want to find an organization where HR is seen as important? Look to knowledge-worker environments, where managing talent is critical to attract and motivate staff.

Average tenure

One of my clients complains that whenever he suggests an alternative way of doing something, he is slapped down by colleagues for not understanding the company's culture. The five years he has spent in the company hardly qualifies him as being new on the block, but relative to the average 18-year tenure of other staffers, he is seen as an upstart.

Companies that employ a lot of long-tenured staffers tend to more cautious and risk-averse, and can be resistant to new ideas. They tend to have high needs for security and dislike novelty and change.

Age and gender composition

As a result of Gen Y expectations, organizations that employ many young educated staffers, such as professional service firms, tend to be more responsive to concerns about flexibility and work/life balance. Similarly, female-dominated organizations tend to more concerned about employee sensitivities and desires than male-dominated companies, because women tend to be more attuned to others' feelings.

Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish.

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